CES showed a vague, uninspired future vision, compared to the future games companies are already charting
Once upon a time, CES - the Consumer Electronics Show, for the uninitiated - was a pretty big deal for the games business. It kicked off the calendar year with a trip to Las Vegas, where the bright lights of the famous strip were temporarily eclipsed by the sheer radiance of the countless screens that lit up the convention centre. CES is primarily about hardware, so it was no E3, but it often lit the path ahead for games - and when Microsoft entered the industry, it chose CES as friendly home turf on which to make major pronouncements about the Xbox.
By contrast, this year's CES was a wasteland for games. Even Microsoft didn't feel like it was worth pulling anything significant out of the hat in this regard - anyone taking the time to tune into their keynote would have been disappointed to see little of anything Xbox related, with only a meagre handful of product demonstrations and no new announcements. Sony, likewise, wanted to talk about video distribution strategies; PlayStation barely got a look-in.
New GPUs and more RAM will happen inevitably, down the line - but this is an industry powered not by new chips but by new ideas
There are two ways you could read this, and both approaches have been picked up widely by tech journalists and analysts. The first is that the games business sees itself disengaging from the consumer electronics business, partially because it's a business that's increasingly focused on art and creativity rather than technology, but mostly because it's a big business in its own right and doesn't need to piggy-back on tech industry shows.
That's one way of looking at things, certainly, and it's probably a factor. What's a more significant factor, though, is that CES is a show which has, in recent years, struggled to attract major announcements and top-flight exhibitors, simply because the tech companies that really matter are big enough to be able to run their own events at which they have the world's undivided attention. And the tech companies that actually matter tend to be the same short list of companies from whom we'd want to hear gaming announcements.
I'm not going to beat around the bush searching for a nice, diplomatic phrase to use in place of "companies that actually matter". Coverage of this year's CES was actually somewhat embarrassing, because so little of it focused on companies who had a significant presence at the show. Apple didn't show up, and probably generated more column inches than any firm that did. Microsoft, which has already announced its exit from next year's show, phoned in a miserable keynote, but managed to create more buzz by not announcing things than most exhibitors did with actual announcements. Sony excited precisely nobody with an unconvincing commitment to a new push on digital content delivery - anything interesting it has to say about businesses where it's actually doing well, like PlayStation, will be reserved for home turf.
With all of those companies keeping their toys firmly locked up in the cupboard, CES became the "shiny televisions and me-too Android phones" show. Little of any interest was shown on the phone front, but Korean firms Samsung and LG showed off cutting-edge OLED television technology in living room sizes for the first time - they'll be vastly too expensive to have much impact on the mass market this year, of course, but might have hit reasonable price points by the time economic conditions improve and consumers start thinking about blowing fresh holes in their credit cards.
Here's the curious thing. Five years ago, you could be guaranteed that even if CES didn't give you any major gaming announcements, it would point to a really solid direction for gaming in future. The development of videogames went hand in hand with the development of consumer electronics for so long that CES became a clear roadsign for the way that games would develop over the coming year or two. Technology on the show floor today would be technology in the living room in 12 months, and games would be there to showcase it.
Today, that doesn't feel right at all. In some respects, that's because the box-shifter companies seem like they're foundering about in search of a direction at present. In televisions, 3D has faltered, and seems doomed to several more years in the wilderness (at least) as competing technologies of varying quality and expense wage a scrappy battle that pours cold water on what little consumer enthusiasm actually exists. In mobile technology, Microsoft is the only company to have recovered enough from the iPhone shock of five years ago to be able to offer any kind of competing vision, and even that is innovation of the human interface variety, rather than any shake-up of hardware or business model. If you're looking for the future of interactive entertainment, nothing at CES was exactly inspiring.
We should be looking to games for the future of consumer electronics, because it's in the gaming space that most of the interesting innovation and experimentation is happening
But the reason for that is simple - it's because CES is now the wrong place to look for the future of games. Rather, we should be looking to games for the future of consumer electronics, because it's in the gaming space that most of the interesting innovation and experimentation is happening right now.
Televisions with motion and speech controlled menus? Microsoft has already got 8-figure sales for Kinect, a device that does precisely that. Entertainment being delivered directly to consumer devices from a wide variety of content creators? That's effectively what the game development industry has turned Apple's App Store into. While representatives at CES were blathering about blue-sky visions for the future of content delivery, Gaikai was getting ready to show off a real, live service where you click a button on Facebook and immediately play World of Warcraft. Even Nintendo, a company often wrongfully disregarded in the annals of technological innovation, can now lay claim to having the world's most successful consumer 3D device.
I often wonder if, working within the boundaries of the games business, we find it too easy to take this kind of stuff for granted. A show like CES really brings home the extent to which services and technologies already offered by brands like Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo are still being seen as a far-flung future by large swathes of the tech industry. Even companies like Apple and Facebook, not in themselves games firms, have seen their development in the past half-decade hugely influenced by the needs and innovations of videogames. The App Store would not be where it is today were it not for games. Nor, for that matter, would Facebook.
What's particularly fascinating is to consider what all of these innovations and developments - in which videogames have truly led the consumer electronics and entertainment industries - have in common. The answer is that, for the most part, they're not founded on high-cost technological innovation. Even Kinect (a product whose success I couch in slightly skeptical terms, because I'm not sure it's quite had its moment just yet) is fundamentally a disruptive technology which combines existing components with very, very clever software. The rest of these innovations are in software, services and business models. They take the technology that we've got now and turn them into something that consumers want, and often, something that ends up radically changing consumer behaviours.
That's something that's very important to bear in mind in light of the still-ongoing discussions about how long this console generation will endure and whether we're going to see new platforms by the end of 2012. The underlying hardware of consoles may not have changed in the past five years, but they have been the most active and exciting years ever for videogames. If anything, the consoles are the most slowly developing area of the market. New GPUs and more RAM will happen inevitably, down the line - but this is an industry powered not by new chips but by new ideas, and the future will be measured not in polygon throughput but in the implementation and adoption of fresh concepts. From that standpoint, CES has never seemed more irrelevant - and the games business has never felt further ahead of rival industries.